Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany's doors to a million refugees and migrants last year — three times as many as the rest of the European Union put together. Critics in Germany predicted a popular backlash, and warned that even her own Christian Democratic Party (CDU) would turn against her.
In the case of the CDU, at least, they were dead wrong. At the party's annual congress on Dec.15, Merkel's speech — in which she did not retreat one inch from her frequent assertion that "we can do it" (accept and integrate the refugees) — got a 10-minute standing ovation that brought tears to her eyes.
Despite a dip in the opinion polls, she also still enjoys widespread popular support — or at least she did until the ugly events in the city of Cologne on New Year's Eve.
In the crowds that gathered in front of Cologne's railway station to celebrate the New Year, hundreds of young men in gangs began harassing and robbing German women. "All of a sudden these men around us began groping us," one victim told German television.
"They touched our behinds and grabbed between our legs. They touched us everywhere, so my girlfriend wanted to get out of the crowd. When I turned around one guy grabbed my bag and ripped it off my body." There were 379 complaints to the police, 40 per cent of which involved sexual assault, and two accusations of rape.
Only 31 men were arrested in connection with these offences, a police failure that caused popular outrage. But the incendiary fact — which the police at first declined to reveal — was that 18 of the 31 men arrested were asylum-seekers, and all but five were Muslims. So there was a firestorm of popular protest about the Cologne attacks (which also happened on a smaller scale in Stuttgart and Hamburg).
The German authorities did their best to contain the damage. The Cologne police chief, Wolfgang Albers, was suspended for holding back information about the attacks, and in particular about the origin of the suspects.
Chancellor Merkel felt obliged to promise that she will change the law, which says that asylum seekers can only be forcibly sent home if they have been sentenced to at least three years in prison, and if their lives are not at risk in their home country.
The new law will say that migrants sentenced to any jail-time, or even put on probation, can be sent home no matter where they come from. It's the least she could do politically, as the extreme anti-immigrant parties are already making a meal out of the Cologne events.
But what on earth made those young Muslim men, the beneficiaries of Germany's generosity, think they could sexually attack young German women in public (and rob them while they were doing it)?
They were not professional thieves, and I very much doubt that they would sexually attack young Muslim women in public if they were back home. I suspect that they were mostly village boys who still believe the popular Middle Eastern stereotypes about good Muslim girls whom you must not harass, and "loose" Western women who are fair game for sexual assault.
I once lived in Istanbul for a while with my wife and two little boys, and we had the same experience as most other Westerners: when my wife was out with me or with the children, she was treated with respect. When she was out alone, she was the target of constant sexual harassment.
At least once a day, as young men passed her in the crowded streets, she would suddenly experience the full frontal grab — and if she protested, they would simply laugh at her. So I taught her what a Turkish woman would say if the same thing happened, and it did help. She still got molested, but when she rebuked the attackers in Turkish they were overwhelmed with shame and panic, and disappeared into the crowd as fast as possible.
This was back when Istanbul only had three million people (it now has 14 million), but already my Turkish friends were moaning about how their city was being "villager-ized" by people migrating from the countryside. Even Turkish women who looked too "Western" were being harassed, and they blamed the ex-villagers.
When you take in a million refugees, more than half of them from the Middle East, you may expect them to include a few religious fanatics who may be or become terrorists. They will also include a considerably larger number of ignorant hicks who think that it is not a crime or a disgrace to attack non-Muslim girls sexually.
No good deed goes entirely unpunished, and this is part of the price Germany will pay for its generosity. It's not an unbearable price, even if it involves one or two more Islamist terrorist attacks than would otherwise have occurred — and in a couple of years most of the young Muslim men who attacked women in Cologne will have figured out that being free, as German women are, does not mean being immoral or freely available.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.